Morrison warns against abandoning Indigenous cultural centre as his plan stalls

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An ambitious $316.5 million Indigenous cultural precinct in Canberra appears to have stalled, nearly two years after Scott Morrison announced it, with a recommended design for the project languishing in Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney’s office for six months.

The cultural precinct, known as Ngurra, which means “home”, “country” or “place of belonging”, was announced in January 2022. Morrison, the then prime minister, described it at the time as a world-class facility that would contribute to Australia’s “continuing journey of reconciliation”.

The precinct would sit in Canberra’s parliamentary triangle.

The building would become a home for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), located on Canberra’s Acton Peninsula, as well as a resting place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ ancestral remains and a learning centre.

Morrison’s intervention to shore up support for the institution is based on his belief that the capital must recognise the many aspects of this country’s story, and comes just weeks after voters rejected the Indigenous Voice to parliament, which he opposed.

“From the War Memorial and many other places of honour, to our political, cultural and judicial institutions that feature significantly on our capital’s landscape, together they form a built memory of our nation,” he said.

“Until Ngurra is built within the parliamentary triangle, the built memory of our country will be incomplete”.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison.Credit: Rhett Wyman

Morrison said his government had fully funded Ngurra in December 2021 and formally announced it in the 2022-23 budget, but “18 months after the election, it does not appear to have been taken up as a priority for the new government”.

“I sincerely hope this changes. Governments should be bigger than orphaning a worthy project simply because they did not initiate it.”

A spokesperson for AIATSIS said stage one and two of the architectural design competition for Ngurra had been completed and a recommendation for the design concept was “with government for consideration”. The facility still has an intended opening date of 2028.

“AIATSIS provided advice to the minister’s office in late May 2023. Meetings and conversations are ongoing with a view to finalising the design competition,” the spokesperson said.

The proposed location for Ngurra, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural precinct, on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.

The new centre was the culmination of a years-long campaign from AIATSIS and would be built on Commonwealth Place, between Old Parliament House and the Australian War Memorial. It would join other national institutions in the parliamentary triangle, including the National Gallery, Library and Archives.

About $8.4 million of the $316.5 cost of the project was allocated in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 budgets, with the rest of the funding allocated and placed in the “decisions taken but not yet announced” section of the budget papers.

Burney’s office declined to answer questions about whether Ngurra would proceed, whether a winning design had been selected, when the winner would be announced and when the first sod on the project would be turned.

Instead, it referred to a recent exchange between Finance Minister Katy Gallagher and the Coalition’s Indigenous Australians spokeswoman Jacinta Nampijinpa Price during a Senate estimates hearing, in which Price asked for an update on the project, including its timing and whether the cost of it had blown out.

Gallagher said the government “will be doing a bit more work on the expected cost for the project, subject to finalisation of the design competition and updating for some of the increases in costs that we have seen”.

Price said Burney needed to clearly explain “why this has gone so wrong and how much it will actually cost”.

“The process was clearly defined yet somehow it has been bungled and no one knows what’s going on. This sits squarely with the minister, it’s time she takes some responsibility and sorts it out,” she said.

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